A while back, I posted something about Leslie Bennett's book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? , in which Bennetts argues that women who drop out of the salaried workforce (note the adjective) to raise kids are making a dumb decision because they will be forever economically penalized. I was pretty hard on ol' Leslie because I thought she was placing the blame on moms and not the culture in which we live; Bennetts responded to that criticism (which was made by many others besides me) by saying basically she wasn't taking sides, she was just a reporter reporting the facts. I think it boiled down to a question of tone, and the fact that maybe Bennetts underestimates the difficulties some mothers face in combining career with child-rearing--a feat she was able to pull off herself rather successfully.
Anyway, all this made me rather interested in today's Kojo Nnambdi Show, on WAMU (88.5 FM) in which the panelists were discussing the benefits of marriage. The panelists included Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and who wrote, among other things, the book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, 1992). Here's my question:
"That's a problem we don't have an answer for, frankly, and I don't think we ever will....There IS a penalty for women dropping out of the labor force."
So, okay, Leslie, you got your facts straight (though the existence of this phenomenon was never anything I took issue with). This is a reality I'm living with right now--though I have to say that my life has resembled Leslie Bennetts' life in many ways, the chief one being that I have never entirely dropped out of the labor force. I quit my job at the Washington Post when my oldest daughter was born 10 years ago, true, and I did not go back to the job that was waiting for me there after my year of maternity leave. My reason was really simple: I did not want to work at a job that would require me to devote roughly 12 hours out of my 24-hour day, with commuting and everything else, when I had a baby at home--and there were no flextime, telecommuting or job sharing options available to me (note to Leslie: please re-read this sentence). I took on contract work with my former employer. I freelanced extensively. I wrote a book. I did the math just the other day and, on average, I have contributed roughly $23,000 a year to the household income for each of the 10 years that I have been "not working" and home with my daughters. But still, in dollar terms, there's no doubt I have paid a price.
In human terms, the jury is still out. When my oldest daughter was three--about the time I was thinking hard about returning to the full-time work force--it began to become apparent that there were Issues looming. She had tantrums--all kids have tantrums--but these were mind-boggling tantrums the likes of which nobody had ever seen. She'd been a high-strung kid from day one, and with that gut feeling that moms develop, I was getting the vibe that rough times were ahead. And they were. Over the next four or five years, she was a part-time job all by herself. Either I was dealing with a meltdown, or recovering from the effects of one, or looking up stuff on the web to explain them, or talking to school officials, or finding the right testing and psychologist, or going to therapy sessions, or....Trust me. It's a long list. Anybody who has a kid with ADD or Sensory Integration Disorder or autism or any other neurological issue is going to know exactly what I'm talking about. Her exact diagnosis doesn't matter here; suffice it to say that today she has a therapist, a psychiatrist, an occupational therapist, a pediatrician and several highly involved educators--all first-rate, all actively involved in helping her find her way through the mine fields she's been given to negotiate, and they have all made a huge difference. Yesterday, her therapist said to me, "Who could have done more for her? Look at what you've hooked her up with." My husband has told me much the same. The fact is that being a person with way too much experience with mood disorders and psychiatry provided me with tools to a) detect a problem at the very beginning and b) figure out, eventually, ways of dealing with it. Had it been up to my husband alone, it wouldn't have happened--not because he loves her less, but because his life has not included anything like the experiences I've had. Could I have done all that and held down a full-time job? Hell, no. That combination would have taxed a person of robust health who could get by on six hours of sleep every night, and believe me, I do not fit that description. It was either me, or nobody; it was a career or her.
So here we come to the big question, the one Leslie Bennetts asks: did I give up too much?
I don't know. All I do know is that today she graduated from fifth grade, and she was beaming. She made the honor roll; she has friends; she is (mostly) a happy kid. Next fall we start middle school, so stay tuned, but today the sky is blue and things look okay--not perfect by any means, but definitely okay. And, yes, there are days when I miss my old life; there are days when I yearn for the independence and sense of mastery I got from bringing in big bucks. During the dry spells that every writer goes through (this one has lasted about a year--so, note to the Cosmos: enough already!) I sometimes think, Boy, what an idiot I was. What a dumbass. If my kid turns into a heroin addict someday, I guess I'll know I made a bad bargain; if she wins the Nobel Prize, I'll know I did the right thing. And who knows what lies in between? Not me, not Leslie Bennetts, not anybody.